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PrimeSense's Tamir Berliner on the future of natural interaction


Many gamers might not know it, but 2010 has been a big year for PrimeSense, and it's thanks to Kinect. The depth sensor might be a Microsoft product, but there's plenty of PrimeSense tech inside making it tick. As a company devoted to natural interaction (NI) interfaces, it must be pretty gratifying to see one of the first major NI devices selling over 2 million units in its first month of availability.

Kinect, however, is just the beginning for PrimeSense. Earlier this month, the company helped found OpenNI, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting "the compatibility and interoperability of Natural Interaction (NI) devices, applications and middleware." So far, the organization has released the OpenNI Framework, including open source drivers and skeleton tracking middleware for NI devices. Although the software was created to support PrimeSense's own 3D sensor development kit, the community quickly (and unsurprisingly) adapted it to work with Kinect as well.

We recently spoke with PrimeSense's Tamir Berliner about the creation of OpenNI. As might be expected, he foresees a bright future for natural interaction.

According to Berliner, the ultimate goal of OpenNI is to create a single standard for all NI devices. "And when I say natural interaction, I don't just mean depth cameras," says Berliner, adding that OpenNI was created with all types of natural interaction in mind, including speech detection and even accelerometers. He sees NI technoogy working its way into many devices, including tablets and mobile phones. "What graphics cards did in the past 10 years," says Berliner, "will be nothing in regards to what will happen in natural interaction."

So why give your software away to independent developers? About a year ago, PrimeSense realized there were "several players" in the NI market developing both hardware and middleware. This created a lot of confusion among developers, says Berliner. "They kept asking us, 'Okay, with which camera should I be developing my application, or with which middleware, what is the licensing model, do I need to pay revenues, is it like a game engine?'" So, PrimeSense worked closely with several companies, including OpenNI partner Side-Kick, to "create something that can actually work."

OpenNI is about more than skeleton tracking. Here's a demonstration of the UI Module, which Berliner notes is one of OpenNI's most overlooked features and also one of the hardest to develop.

By trying to create a standard, says Berliner, future NI applications will be able to run on any platform, regardless of the hardware that runs it. "If the market becomes too segmented, then the cost of application development becomes too expensive, and then people just don't develop applications for those platforms," says Berliner, "and that's what we're trying to prevent." He admits that some people believe that releasing OpenNI was "not such a smart move" for an industry leader like PrimeSense, but he believes that the goals of OpenNI will lead to the "fastest growth" of the industry and will produce a mature market much sooner.

Berliner notes that OpenNI is off to a good start, admitting that initial interest was so high that the OpenNI website almost crashed. He's impressed with what the community managed to do before the OpenNI framework was even released, something we've covered quite a bit here at Joystiq, and he's excited to give developers new tools. "Being able to provide people with the ability to express themselves, that's great."

A demonstration of Jewel Thief, a game in development at USC as part of research into virtual physical rehabilitation.

Developers are already creating "amazing" NI applications, says Berliner, ranging from physical rehabilitation programs to, of course, games. And all of this, he notes, happened within a week of the OpenNI release. "I really didn't expect it to get so big so fast," says Berliner, who noted earlier in our interview that OpenNI launched without any marketing at all. "It's been an exciting week for me, and for almost everyone at PrimeSense, to see people actually working and doing," Berliner pauses, searching for the right word, "'cool' is the thing to say, cool things." He believes this is just the beginning though. "I think we are going to see things that are much more interesting."

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